Secret Of Mana Remake Has Great Combat, Annoying Menus

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Everyone loves Flammie. Square Enix

I didn’t get to fly around on good old Flammie, Secret of Mana’s answer to The Neverending Story’s Falcor, in my latest demo of the PS4 remake of the SNES classic. I’m still a little salty about that. However, I did get to test out several different weapon types, experience combat with more than one party member and travel by cannon. This latest demo served up far more game than my previous hands-on, and old-school JRPG fans have a lot to look forward to when the final product hits PS4 and Vita in mid-February.

My two-hour demo allowed me to explore some new environments and dig a little deeper into the game’s action-oriented combat system. The aesthetics are a polished, 3D version of the SNES original. Forests, villages, caverns and temples are vividly colored and distinctive, preserving a retro vibe while adding a few modern whips and jingles by way of fine detail and lighting effects. Secret of Mana has a charming, diverse world, full of purple feline merchants who love a cat pun, cannibal dwarves and mystical elemental deities. At least in the early hours of the game, the maps don’t feel overlong or grindy, as you can dash through areas you’ve already visited without forced random encounters. Locations flow seamlessly into one another, encouraging you to keep exploring just a little further before hitting the inn and calling it a day.

Secret of Mana ’s lickety-split combat was always its biggest draw, and toggling between the sword, spear, knuckles and axe is still great fun all these years later. Even with a screen full of bustling baddies, the PS4 demo showed no evidence of the occasional lag from the SNES original. Each weapon has a brief, timed meter, so you won’t do much damage if you mindlessly spam the attack button. You’ll have to get a feel for the distance and recharge time of each weapon, but it’s all pretty easy and intuitive. Some weapons are more effective against certain enemy types than others, and each piece of your arsenal will grow stronger the more you (or your allies) use it in combat, unlocking powerful charged attacks along the way, a key element in boss fights. You can also use weapons to interact with the environment: a swing of the sword will clear bushes from your path, while more substantial rocks require the chop of an axe.

There’s still a few kinks to be worked out. While exploring an area around an early dungeon (Gaia’s Navel), the mini-map in the top right corner of the screen went funky to the point of uselessness, making it tricky to navigate the spiraling terrain and resulting in some retraced steps. It worked completely fine in every other area I saw, though.

The concentric-circle menu system continues to feel like a cumbersome holdover from the 16-bit era, and you’ll end up futzing around with it more than necessary to use an item or switch weapons. Although, the glitch in the menu interface I encountered in my first demo (which caused the item list to spin of its own accord for about ten seconds) has, happily, been fixed.

Still, I didn’t like Mana’s menu system in the 90s, and I don’t like it now. It’s a little too easy to mistakenly throw away armor you just purchased instead of equipping it (yep, I did this in the demo), a big pain in the early game when cash is scarce. The devs have added the ability to set certain items to hotkeys (like candy, a go-to healing item), but the option to toggle weapons on the fly would be another nice inclusion to avoid breaking the momentum of combat. I’d rather see a Final Fantasy-esque separate screen for item management and hotkeys for weapons, but perhaps that’s just me.

This latest version of Secret of Mana features a nice new English voiceover -- even NPCs! -- and a remastered soundtrack. It’s a thoughtful touch, making the cutscenes more memorable and the towns and villages you visit feel a bit more lively. Even if you haven’t heard it for years, like me, the familiar music will sound even better in high-quality audio. The original soundtrack holds up, and the demo suggests the team behind the game hasn’t fiddled with it, only made it sound crisper and more true to the original instrumentation. The tooty-flutey overworld theme has been stuck in my head for days.

Menu quibbles aside, I’m really excited to play Secret of Mana all the way through again. It’s bursting with old-school charm, but the blend of action and strategy in the combat system elevates it above a mere nostalgia trip. If you’re an RPG fan, this is definitely one to earmark for your holiday gift cards.

Secret of Mana comes to PS4 and Vita on Feb. 15. In the meantime, check out the spiffy new intro for the game below, and let us know if you’re planning to pick up the Mana remake in the comments!

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